Do you remember the movie "Election," with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick? In the first scene Mr. McAllister asks his high school class about the difference between ethics and morals. Ironically, of course, the one student who eagerly attempts to answer the question is also the one who proceeds to make mincemeat of both ethics and morals during the course of the movie, her ambition a veritable engine for her imagination and willingness to do almost anything to secure her class presidency. Tracy Flick sees the future open before her, dependent on winning that race, completely indignant when someone dares run against her, amazingly unself-conscious about the levels to which she’ll "stoop to conquer.’
In fact, Tracy continues to see herself as a good person, earnestly praying before bedtime for her "Dear Lord Jesus" to "go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong so that I may carry out your will on earth as it is in heaven. Amen." In this Tracy exemplifies the difference between morals and ethics: morals relate to one’s personal value system, while ethics relate to one’s conduct within a community. Ethics concern the responsibilities people within a community have toward one another and toward a larger sense of "good living" or "correct conduct," while morals are more commonly associated with beliefs about what is right or wrong in a particular society. Ethics are particularly important in professional communities where there are certain standards that each member is expected to meet, especially when someone’s life or livelihood is one the line (doctors and lawyers, for example, even teachers).
It’s easy, of course, to mix these up, and people often do. In fact, I think we see the confusion over ethics and morals every time one of these author-conduct incidents rolls out. As soon as an author is called out over some particular conduct – plagiarism, gaming reviews, re-shelving books, whatever – a lot of backlash erupts around whether or not the author is being attacked. Which leads to a lot of mashing up about whether or not the bloggers who cover these stories are, for lack of a better description, mean girls who just like to stir shit up.
Since we’ve talked a lot about the difference between the author as a person and the author’s work and online conduct, I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about blogger conduct, and more specifically about whether bloggers need a code of ethics similar to the one we seem to assume of authors. Do we need some community standards of reporting and reviewing, even though we’re largely amateurs in this online arena and not professionals earning a living?
I don’t have an absolute answer to this question, but before I offer my view and open it up for discussion, I want to put a few things on the table to chew over:
First, do bloggers constitute a community separate and apart from the online community more generally? Since many different types of people blog, is there a special category for blogs like Dear Author, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Teach Me Tonight, All About Romance After Hours, and the like, that sets them apart? Is it the particular activity that defines the blog community or the role of the bloggers?
If bloggers are a community unto themselves, to what standards should we be held? Should we meet more general journalistic standards or editorial standards? Does it make a difference if we attempt impartiality in our reportage and commenting, or should we be required to provide honest opinions? Should we be required to believe everything we assert? Cyberjournalist.net created a proposed Bloggers’ Code of Ethics that emphasizes three main categories: Be Honest and Fair; Minimize Harm; and Be Accountable. Some of what they focus on – "never plagiarize," for example – is relevant to anyone writing publicly, but other things – "show good taste" and avoid "pandering to lurid curiosity" is obviously a HUGE matter of judgment, not to mention valuation of a blog’s worth. Do editorialists abide by these ethics? Do journalists, for that matter?
In the specific arena of Romance-related blogging, are reviewers a special sub-community within online blogging, and should there be a special code of conduct for reviewing, regardless of the general character of the blog? Author David Louis Edelman recently posted a list of things he wants from reviews, namely that they be honest, insightful, opinionated, detailed, original accurate, independent, not anonymous, and free of spoilers. Would the institution of something like this as a reviewer standard benefit reviews, which are, by nature, individual opinions? Why, for example, should reviewers always steer clear of spoilers if a spoiler is necessary in elucidating one of the detailed points Edelman wants in reviews? And how much detail is enough in a review? Under his standards, neither Romantic Times nor Publishers Weekly would qualify, I’m afraid, and yet they continue to serve as standard benchmarks for authors.
Should bloggers who make money blogging be held to a different standard? We often talk about how authors are professionals, how they are writing for money, and as such should accept a certain amount of straightjacketing in their online conduct. Should so-called professional bloggers have similar "professional expectations?" And what about amateur bloggers whose only capital is their reputation as bloggers, who are not making money, but who may gain a certain readership based on a positive reputation, whatever that may be based on (humor, reviews, honest dialogue, whatever).
As a blog reader – whether you are author, reader, fellow blogger, whatever – do you feel that there should be minimum ethical standards of conduct to which blogs should be held? What do you expect from the blogs you frequent, and do you give more validity to blogs that proclaim some ethical standard of their own, or are you simply looking for entertainment, ethical standards be damned?
My own view – not fully considered and open to reconsideration — is that the role of blogs is to provoke discussion, and that even more than authors, bloggers are individual voices that are not part of a professional group. So while anyone who writes has to be conscious of plagiarism and copyright concerns, in terms of some collective code of behavior bloggers are merely public citizens (and I use this in the most general way, not to imply national identity), and should be held to the same basic standards of any member of society. One important caveat, though: if someone is blogging in their capacity as a professional, then they may be held to different standards, depending on their professional context and their content
Most bloggers seem to be hobbyists, though, and not inclined toward professionalization in regard to blogging. One blogger or a thousand can all talk simultaneously without any of us being in contact or affiliation, in the same way that a thousand different conversations can proceed at once without any concept of them being linked. At a basic level, blog = voice(s), regardless of the actual people behind the blog. Authors, on the other hand, do not distill down to that same level. Book = voice, but an author functions on multiple levels, as individual, as professional, as contractor with a publisher, etc. I believe, therefore, that authors have responsibilities to one another that bloggers don’t. For example, if an author engages in reshelving books, s/he is violating the policies of bookstores and publishers, as well as engaging in an unfair practice relative to other authors. Whereas bloggers, especially not-for-profit bloggers, don’t have that same kind of mutual professional reliance because our role as a blogger is synonymous with the blog itself. Blogs are more like books, in my opinion, and do we hold books to a professional code of ethics? Do we accuse them of being mean and of lying?
Essentially, I believe that blogs function as sites of public discourse, and that their popularity, value, and reliability will be determined on the basis of individual blog (and the persona of the blogger) relative to the blog’s audience. And despite the belief that bloggers can and do basically say anything they want without thought, I actually think there is a dearth of really good, really challenging, really fearless public conversation online, and that it sometimes takes a very provocative, even polarizing and sensationalistic voice to get some of these discussions going.